Townes Van Zandt – “Dead Flowers”

Most cover songs fail for the simple fact that they aren’t believable; they are too clearly another artist’s material, temporarily claimed or outright desecrated by an imposter. There are exceptions of course, as this list has demonstrated, and one of the best examples is Townes Van Zandt’s appropriately boozy and ramshackle version of the Jagger/Richards song “Dead Flowers.” It succeeds because Van Zandt understands the tune’s pissed-off bitterness as well as the underlying class tensions between little Susie and the protagonist. The musician also convincingly sounds like he lived it, and come to think of it, maybe he did: no stranger to hard living and harder drugs, a line like “I’ll be in my basement room/ With a needle and a spoon/ And another girl can take my pain away” could easily have been written by Van Zandt himself. – Eric Dennis

The Jesus & Mary Chain – “Alphabet St.”

Prince is no stranger to his songs being performed by other artists, often at his own request (or possibly command, depending on who his hot female protégé of the moment is). A single off his 1988 album Lovesexy, it was covered by a band that seems at first unlikely to be listening to Prince: the Jesus & Mary Chain. While the famed Scottish duo’s powerful combination of Bo Diddley rhythm, snarling feedback and calculated apathy is on the far end of the rock spectrum from Prince’s cool precision, funk and pop perfection, it makes sense in a weird way.

Taken from one of Prince’s most overtly spiritual records, concerned with the battle between innocence and sin, it’s also full of lyrics like “I’m gonna drive my daddy’s Thunderbird” that sound tailor made for a pair of brothers obsessed with surf rock and the Beach Boys. The JAMC have also long worked through thoughts of conflicting sexuality and vice, so it’s no wondersinger Jim Reid was looking to “Crown the first girl I meet|.” And more than that, whereas Prince’s version was his typical 1980s radio ready, disjointed funk, the JAMC work the song into a piece of music wholly their own, all fuzz, metallic guitar riff and droning vocals. It works so well as a JAMC song that it’s difficult to believe than anyone else ever wrote it. – Nathan Kamal

Hole – “Gold Dust Woman”

The closing track on Fleetwood Mac’s enormous successful 1977 album Rumours, “Gold Dust Woman” quickly became one of Stevie Nicks’ signature songs. While I’m sure the fraught emotions of the song are as comfortable to Nicks as a well-worn shawl, the original version is surprisingly languid, a tired drone of a song. I far prefer the raw, agitated cover of the song recorded by Hole almost 20 years later (for, of all things, the soundtrack to The Crow: City of Angels). Courtney Love’s band was still riding high from the success of Live Through This, and their take on the song is seductive, explosive, angry, fevered and menacing. Love may have been a strutting disaster, even then, but she sure knew how to burn through a song. Hell, I’d prefer this version of the song just for the fierce way she snarls, “Lousy lovers.” – Dan Seeger

Johnny Cash – “Hurt”

The 1994 Trent Reznor-penned tune from The Downward Spiral is good. The 2002 Johnny Cash cover of the same tune is great. Cash brought undeniable authenticity to the song after a life of addiction and personal pain. The acoustic underpinnings of Cash’s Rick Rubin-produced version accompany the singer’s gravelly, weathered voice. As memorable as the song itself is, the music video bumped the tune into legendary status, with its grainy images from Cash’s past and his current skeletal body juxtaposed. Both Grammy and CMA Award wins insured that the cover version would live forever. – Jacob Adams

Grateful Dead – “Morning Dew”

The Grateful Dead actually started out as a cover band, playing music for dancers in the psychedelic ballrooms of the Haight-Ashbury. Drawing from a wide variety of sources from new and old folk tunes, Chicago blues, modern jazz and good-time rock ’n’ roll, they always managed to make other people’s material their own—but none quite so successfully as “(Walk Me Out in the) Morning Dew.” The song had already suffered a tortured history by the time the Dead got ahold of it: originally written and recorded by Canadian folksinger Bonnie Dobson for her 1962 album, At Folk City, it was redone in a folk-rock style by Vince Martin and Fred Neil in 1964 and again by Tim Rose in 1966, who tweaked the words enough to finagle an undeserved co-writer’s credit. The Dead take a very different approach from either of these, slowing the tempo and eliminating the overt references to nuclear holocaust, instead substituting an enigmatic “Guess it doesn’t matter, anyway” at the end of the verses. An early, lackluster take appears on their amphetamine-fueled debut album, Grateful Dead (1967), but it would take a few years for the song to gel onstage. By Europe ‘72, “Morning Dew” had become an epic tour de force, an opportunity for Jerry Garcia to not only display his impressive guitar soloing but to sing with deeply affecting emotion. The song was subsequently covered numerous times by artists such as Jeff Beck, Lee Hazelwood, Nazareth and Devo, but the Dead’s version is the one to beat. – Rodger Coleman

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One Comment

  1. iembalm

    October 20, 2012 at 3:12 pm

    Pictures of Matchstick Men. Camper Van Beethoven’s version far exceeds the rather slight original.


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